Planning for Successful Off-Site Meetings

By:  Deborah C. Scaringi

We all know the routine.  The conference room is booked, the attendees are invited and they arrive armed with a coffee cup in one hand and a blackberry in the other, with their minds on other topics.  Let’s face it, meetings are a fact of life in today’s business environment.  But are these meetings productive?  Are they contributing to the goals of the firm?

Meetings are an interesting study in human nature.  At your next meeting, sit back and watch people file into the room.  Most people gravitate to the same chair, next to the same people, time and time again. They are distracted by blackberries; allowing their attention to be divided.  Once the agenda is distributed, behaviors are varied.  Someone stares out the window, someone types away on a blackberry, and there are a few engaged participants. Human nature shows us that we are creatures of habit—preferring comfort and familiarity over change. Holding meetings in the same surroundings day in and day out can lead to stagnant employees, allow for habitual interactions among co-workers, and slow progress towards furthering the goals of the organization.  This scenario may not always be the case, but it is important to study the people you work with, particularly those charged with directing the firm’s strategic initiatives.  So, what do you do?  Change your environment.

Offering employees a change of surroundings is by no means a new idea.  Many companies send their teams out to unique settings in the hope of establishing teamwork and fostering personal connections in the place of business.  Ultimately, the goal is to bring out the best in people and create an atmosphere that encourages teamwork. Of course it isn’t feasible to hold all meetings in new and inventive surroundings.  Not all scenarios require it.  However, there are meetings that require more of its participants.   So, how do you decide which meetings need to be shaken up and how do you gain the most benefit by moving to an off-site location?  Let’s look at the options.

Which Meetings Need A Change of Scenery?

There are many types of meetings, but which ones benefit the most from going off-site?  Essentially, there are two types of meetings that benefit from being held out of the office environment and away from the distractions of the day.  These two meeting types are:  (1.)  The Informational Meeting—those offering training or continuing education to members of the firm and (2.) The Strategy (or brainstorming) Meeting— those aimed at generating new ideas for business development and firm improvement.  Let’s focus on the Strategy Meeting.

All firms benefit from an annual ‘meeting of the minds’ to assess the current state of the firm and develop a plan for continued success.  For the best possible outcome, these gatherings require folks to break out of their familiar routines and allow for innovative thinking.  One way of fostering this is by changing the meeting location.  When people are put into a fresh environment, they often experience a change in how they respond to each other and the issues at hand.  This shift energizes participants allowing them to more easily access creative ideas that may otherwise be put aside by the pressing business of the day.  By investing time in cultivating ideas, members of the firm are more motivated to explore new ways of building successful initiatives and seeing them through to fruition.

Making the Move.  Reaping the Benefits.

Now that we have identified which meetings benefit most from an off-site location, let’s briefly explore some of the ways to make the most of that decision.

Where To Go. When selecting a meeting location, make a conscious effort to create a connection between participants and the purpose of their business.   In moving the meeting to an off-site location, you want to break out of stale routines.  If you typically meet in a conference room, perhaps you want to select an informal spot that allows for round table discussions, break-out sessions or one-on-one conversations.  If your office is located in the city, try meeting in a rural setting where participants may be inspired to think differently or take advantage of brainstorming in an outdoor space.

Meeting Style. Reconsider the structure of your meeting.  Force yourself to explore a different type of agenda. Allow yourself, as the meeting leader, to break out of personal habits and routine.  This doesn’t necessarily mean throwing away your entire style, but it does require making an effort to shake things up a bit.  Try strategically assigning seats in an effort to put members of your team together who wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to work side by side in the traditional business setting.  Consider changing those seat assignments a few times throughout the course of the meeting to encourage additional combinations.  Break out from the expected power-point and use a combination of methods.  For instance, put one topic on a white board and use 5 minutes to collectively “speed-think” and identify related ideas.  When all of the ideas are on the white board, invite each person to physically go up to the white board and prioritize the ideas.  Take the top 3 identified ideas as the topics for the day for identifying your goals of the session.  You may also want to utilize break-out groups for concept sharing, include incentives for generating new ideas, and reward creative problem solving.

Set ground rules.  Make sure you set the rules of play before you get started.  It is important to set participation expectations—allow no one to coast nor dominate the conversation.  Some sample ground rules may include: (1.)  Collect blackberries and cell phones, or at least banish them during meeting times.  Promise that there will be regular breaks for checking in at the office and stick to your promise.  (2.) Everyone must contribute in some meaningful way and then keep track of those contributions.  (3.) All ideas will be heard and considered—no one person may monopolize the process or negatively criticize ideas.  (4.) Stick to mutually agreed upon start and stop times in the agenda.  (5.) Confidentiality will be honored.  (6.) Agree to anchor the meeting with discussion that furthers the business at hand.  This means that you agree to table personal agendas and take individual conversations out of the day.

Success is There for the Taking

Sometimes you just need to make a few changes to jump start successful initiatives, build consensus and foster camaraderie.  Give important meetings a boost by offering meeting participants a change of scenery.  In doing so, you move people out of their routines and avoid distractions while triggering new ideas.  All of these improvements lead to short-term changes for the organization and direct the firm towards long-term benefits.  By choosing your location, agenda and style carefully you open up opportunities you may have never thought possible.  Give it a try and reap the benefits.